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Researching Bears Ears: reference practice for civic engagement

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The purpose of this study is to describe practical, generalizable competencies for reference librarians to promote civic engagement and social justice while assisting with politicized queries.


Working through an example of tension between land development and protection of an indigenous sacred place illustrates reference strategies that model an ideally inclusive community dialogue.


To promote civic engagement, librarians have a role to teach basic civics and to help identify opportunities for public comments and other “leverage points” in a system. An information trail for civic engagement is generated though an interaction between government planning, industry lobbying and citizen activism; it is supported by online and gray literature sources that typically fall outside of typical library collections and databases. A way to grapple with contentious and distorting political claims is to model ideal stakeholder inclusivity, a strategy that also helps to bring marginalized voices into the civic dialogue. Sources from the humanities express cultural and spiritual considerations that are absent from typical political discourse.

Research limitations/implications

Strategies are based on experience as a staff writer for a community magazine.

Practical implications

Specific strategies and competencies promote civic engagement during the time period allowed by a typical extended reference dialogue.

Social implications

An overly sunny view of community problem-solving glosses over some messy realities. To promote civic engagement, librarians must develop competencies to help citizens grapple with marginalization and distorting claims.


Calls to promote civic engagement and social justice in libraries require librarians to develop new competencies. Working through a case study illustrates specific knowledge and reference practices that support strong democracy.
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Keywords: Civic engagement; Empowerment; Government information; Reference services; Social justice; Stakeholders

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Sustainability Office, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah, USA

Publication date: February 10, 2020

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